Saturday, March 27, 2010

Nick Veasey's art under the skin

In a world rife with identity-based divisions, it’s the rare and valuable artist who can express the commonalities of the human experience in a way that can’t be debated or challenged or politicized. Kudos, then, to Nick Veasey.

The award-winning British artist and photographer recently published “X-ray: See Through the World Around You” (Viking/Penguin), a survey of 13 years of his experimentation with X-ray imagery, a book of startlingly original images using X-ray technology and some Photoshop manipulation to get under the skin of our everyday lives in stark and novel ways. The New York Daily News ran a slideshow of his work recently.

Some of the most arresting forms of expression and creativity in the culture have less to do with sui generis conjuring — creating something new out of whole cloth — and more to do with juxtaposing or repositioning life’s ordinaries in refreshing new ways.

That’s Veasey’s approach. By using the common medical tool of X-rays and placing its resultant images in an everyday context, Veasey has created darkly whimsical work that speaks to human universality, even as it shows how those tools have already permeated every part of the human condition.

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In Veasey’s hands, the intrinsically diagnostic function of the X-ray takes on a voyeuristic aspect that is one with our relentless thirst for information. That comes home in one image in particular: an X-ray image of a piece of luggage, its contents revealed — an image of a carry-on bag all too common today for security screeners at an airport near you. An expression of 21st-century global security on the gallery wall.

“The Gunman,” an eerily beautiful image of an armed man, is another commentary on life in the post-9/11 world. The X-rays are powerful enough to see through the external contours of the man's foreboding silhouette, and through the gun he’s hiding in a holster, right down to the bullets in the magazine.

There’s no way to tell if this is a hijacker or a U.S. marshal sworn to stop a hijacker. The almost clinical anonymity of the figure, the lack of context for the weapon he’s carrying and why he carries it, gives this image the power of the dangerous ubiquity its subject represents.

Luckily, no human beings were harmed for these images. Since X-rays require several minutes to achieve the stunningly sharp resolution we see (a level of exposure that would be dangerous to living tissue), several of the images were created with either skeletons in rubber suits or cadavers donated by medical science.

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Which doesn’t diminish their emotional impact. You can’t look at these images without embracing the mortality behind them, however wittily expressed. Veasey’s “The Human Race” — a sly postmodern update of some of Eadweard Muybridge’s celebrated motion studies and the various ascent-of-man graphics we’ve all seen forever — puts the totality of human endeavor in a wryly cynical perspective.

But there’s also something darkly hopeful about these shots. There are exactly 206 bones in the human body; when you see those bones in the various skeletal forms of Veasey’s work, arrayed in various human endeavors, what comes clear is what we all have in common regardless of race, color or creed.

In Veasey’s artistic world, utopia is darkly lit. There is no racism, gender bias, religious bent or political persuasion. We are all very much the same.

Mortality is an equal opportunity employer.

Image credits: All images © 2010 Nick Veasey.

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